This information is provided by Chartered Clinical Psychologist, Dr Victoria Samuel, who runs The Parent Support Service.

Tantrums: Why do They Happen?

Tantrums - meltdowns of screaming, crying, kicking, biting and hitting - are most common between the ages of 18 months and 3 years. This is associated with developmental changes. At this stage the toddler becomes more mobile and therefore more independent. However, with increasing mobility comes increasing frustration. Tantrums are a vent for the frustrations a child continually encounters. Here are some of the main reasons why tantrums happen:

1. A Desire for Independence

("Me do it!") and a frustration with their own inabilities can trigger meltdowns. Toddlers discover things they cannot quite physically manage by themselves, but at the same time, they don't want help!

2. A Desire to Exercise Physical Freedom

Toddlers are keen to exercise their new found physical freedom by exploring the exciting world around them, but they rapidly discover the world is full of people trying to prevent them getting what they want - "no", "don't touch", "leave it alone". This is understandably frustrating!

3. Lack of Planning Skills and Self Control

Toddlers ability to plan ahead or exercise self-control has not yet developed. Toddlers will act on impulse, with no sense of planning. If they want something, they want it NOW! Delay will cause agitation and rage.

4. Unable to Understand Other People's Feelings

A child of this age is also not able to understand other people's feelings. Reasoning such as "your brother's upset, he wants the toy you just took" will mean nothing. All the toddler knows is "I want it!". Obstacles to this may cause a meltdown!

5. Verbal Skills Lag Behind

Verbal skills lag behind advancing motor skills. The toddler is starting to influence the world around them through physical actions, but when they these are unsuccessful, they are still often unable to control events by communicating needs and wishes. This is hugely frustrating.

6. Attention Seeking

Tantrums can also develop as effective ways to get attention or to exert control over situations. If a toddler comes to realise that screaming and lashing out is an effective way to get their own way, then tantrums will become more frequent.

7. Hunger and Tiredness

Tiredness & hunger can also cause tantrums, or at least make them worse. This is because these states reduce the tolerance for coping with frustration and explosions are therefore more likely.

Tantrums: How Can I Avoid Them?

To some extent tantrums are an inevitable feature of this developmental stage and you will not be able to eliminate the frustration your toddler will inevitably experience. However, there are things you can do to minimise frustration, as listed below.

You can also significantly reduce the likelihood of tantrums happening in the future by responding effectively when they do occur - see "Tantrums: How Should I Respond?".

Tips for Reducing Tantrums

Monitor flashpoints and see if they can be avoided. For example, if preventing your child from grabbing objects keeps triggering meltdowns, keep things out of sight or reach. Or, if your child is irritable and tantrum-prone when they are hungry after nursery, take a snack with you when you go to pick them up.

The need for independence is powerful. Try to give your child some control over small things by offering simple choices. For example, "Do you want orange juice or apple juice?" or " Do you want to wear the red tea-shirt or the blue one?" Don't use words that indicate choice where is there is no choice! eg "How about a bath?", "Shall we switch the TV off?"

Make sure that tantrums aren't the only way for your child to get your attention.

Reward positive behaviour with praise and encouragement.

Minimise frustration associated with inability, by giving age-appropriate toys and involving your child in tasks which set them up for success.

Minimise frustration associated with disappointment by giving warnings about what will happen next "One more minute, then I'll take the plug out". "This is the last story, then it's time to sleep"

Involve your child as much as possible during flashpoint activities. E.g. at the supermarket give your child a mini list (you could use pictures) and get them to help you choose the products or ask them to put a few things in a bag at the checkout. It may take a bit longer, but they less likely to get bored and attempt to get your attention through explosions.

If you see frustration kicking in, use distraction. Take advantage of a child's short attention span and divert their attention. Offer an alternative object from the one they want, introduce a new activity to replace the frustrating one, or simply change the scene, take your child outside or inside or move into a different room.

Alternatively, shift their visual attention - point at an aeroplane in the sky, laugh at the funny picture in the shop window. If really stuck, make something up: "owh look at that cloud, it looks like a dinosaur, owh its gone now"

Tantrums: How Should I Respond?

If you feel that your child is using tantrums to get his own way, you need to make sure that tantrums don't lead to him getting his own way! Your responses to tantrums need to make them less worthwhile. You will need willpower; every time you give in for the sake of peace and quiet, you reinforce tantrums as a likely behaviour.


Tantrums are a child's way of expressing intense emotion. There's nothing wrong with feeling negative emotions. Telling a child to stop being upset or angry is about as effective as if an other adult told you to stop feeling these feelings!

Show empathy for your child's frustration or upset by putting their feelings into words. This will help them to verbalise feelings rather than act them out as they get older. E.g. "You're upset because you wanted me to put that chocolate in the trolley, but I wouldn't" or "You're frustrated because you want to put the puzzle together but you can't quite work it out"

Try to divert the tantrum by distraction or alternative activities "Right, can you find me the bananas?","hum this puzzle's a bit tricky, lets try another one". Sometimes this is enough to prevent an explosion, but not always.


Make sure your child is safe and can't hurt herself or other people or damage things.

Stay calm. Avoid shouting or hitting which will only make the tantrums worse. If you're starting to lose your temper, leave the room.

Don't reason with your child, they won't be in a position to listen.

If your limitations (e.g. "no you can't have those sweets") sparked the tantrum, don't give in. Stick by whatever you said otherwise you give the message that tantrums are an effective way for your child to gain control.

If you're not feeling too stressed, stay near to the child as the intense emotion they are feeling can be quite frightening for them.

Let the tantrum run its course whilst calmly carrying on with your activities. The idea is to reassure your child with your presence, but give minimum attention so as not to reinforce the behaviour.

For older children, you may wish to use time out - take them to a boring place, calmly explaining that they need to "cool down".

When the tantrum has subsided, cuddle your child, praise them for calming down and move on with the rest of the day in an upbeat manner.

Your Views

Posted by:

Posts: 10


South Yorkshire


OOh you gotta love 'em - I have found that the best way of dealing with a tantrum is to avoid it in the first place. Tired over stimulated children are bound to have a bit of a wobbly and so are those fed garbage. They again there is always the child that sleeps 14 hours a night and has a wholly organic diet that can show off a real treat!

complain about this post

Posted: 18/Apr/07 at 12:51:13

Posted by:

Posts: 52



Most mum's and dad's will just feel sorry for the parents involved.

complain about this post

Posted: 14/May/07 at 16:11:37

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